This is a crucial moment for public transit across the region.
The financial picture is grim. Yet, we still need the transportation network that makes the region work 24/7. And we still have to plan for the future.
Come Wednesday, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board will face a variety of budgetary scenarios, each likely more ugly than the next. There will be service cuts and layoffs to consider. The Long Island Rail Road could see full branches shuttered. Avoiding such steps is dependent only on whether federal stimulus funds come through and, if so, how much.
So far, no news from Congress is bad news. The MTA board, and commuters across the region, must be prepared for bumpy roads ahead.
But there is a ray of hope.
When he takes office, President-elect Joe Biden can make a few moves to help right away. He can start by reinstating the MTA’s Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements for COVID-19-related expenses like personal protective equipment, estimated to cost as much as $500 million in 2020 alone. It’s absurd that the Trump administration stopped those payments, and it’s a small but easy fix Biden can make in his first few days.
Next, Biden can move the region ahead in bigger ways. Take congestion pricing, which could bring in $1 billion a year. The MTA is awaiting a clear answer from federal officials on how the authority should move forward with the plan’s environmental review, which would pave the way for the tolling of Manhattan’s central business district.
Then there’s the promise that Biden might do what President Donald Trump did not — invest in the nation’s infrastructure. Trump once tweeted his support of extending the Second Avenue Subway but, like so many of his infrastructure promises, nothing ever came of it. Biden has the chance to put federal dollars, and broad support, behind big transit projects key to the region’s comeback.
Perhaps most significant, Biden can — and must — pick up where his work with President Barack Obama left off. That means returning to the Obama plan to fund half of the Gateway project to build a new tunnel under the Hudson River. Biden knows how critical Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is, and just how awful a failure of those tunnels would be.
But while such wish list items would be helpful, none will mean much without federal relief. The MTA is seeking $12 billion; the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey needs $3 billion. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell must end the logjam and get the nation’s economy moving.
But if he doesn’t, tough decisions will have to be made. For that, the MTA needs thoughtful decision-makers, who are prepared to make difficult choices.
It’s a lot to expect, and we must be clear: Biden’s election won’t solve every New York problem. But his attention to these issues can start getting the trains back on track.
— The editorial board